We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful

Oh Morrissey. Does it have to be so? Not according to this theory.

Over lunch a few weeks ago, my friend Gretchen, who's becoming an expert on happiness through a book she's writing, mentioned something about how her sister, who's a writer in Hollywood, found a way to eliminate a lot of unhappiness in her life by believing that if the people around her succeed, this mean she'll succeed too.

I was misquoting this intriguing idea all over town so I asked Gretchen to clarify, which she did, in a blog post. I'm tempted just to reprint the whole thing because I've been thinking about it all week but I'll just draw your attention to my favorite part:

My sister always says, "People succeed in groups." Now, my sister works in a notoriously competitive, jealous, back-biting industry: she's a TV writer in Los Angeles.

It happened that a few years ago, a friend of hers scored a major success.

"Do you have the funny feeling?" I asked her. The "funny feeling" is the term the Big Man and I use to describe the uncomfortable feeling you get when a friend or peer has a major accomplishment. You feel happy for that person, but also envious, and also insecure and anxious about your own success.

She answered, "Maybe a little bit, but I remind myself that people succeed in groups. It's great for him, and it's also good for me."

By contrast, I have a friend who describes her brother as having a zero-sum attitude toward good fortune: if something good happens to someone else, he feels like something good is less likely to happen to him. As a result, he can't be happy for anyone else.

Now, you might argue about whether it's true that people succeed in groups. I happen to think it is true, but it's debatable. But whether or not it's objectively true, it's an attitude that will make a person much happier. After all, your friend doesn't get the promotion, or not, depending on whether it makes you happy or unhappy, but your attitude about that promotion will affect your happiness.

I have been working on a similar idea over the past few years, the belief that a writer has absolutely nothing to lose and everything to gain by helping another writer out. This came out of a feeling that it was a zero-sum game; I noticed that I and writers I knew were cagey and begrudging of contacts, editors' names, advice, empathy...I think because happiness or success feels so fleeting, and we hold on tight to our own little shred of it, terrified someone's going to bite on our good time.

But it totally changes your perspective if you think "people succeed in groups." There's the karmic component, of course, which I'll let you consider in your own faith-tinged way. Then there's the way it makes you feel. If you can truly be happy for others' success, believing that their doing well means good things are happening for you, it eliminates a whole slew of things to feel anxious about. You're driven to help other people, to feel buoyed by their good news, and you're generally more pleasant to hang out with when you're helping people out, rather than viewing their lives through the lens of how it might negatively impact your own.

Thinking about Gretchen's sister's theory makes me want to surround myself with people who are succeeding, and to spend less time with people who tend to get tripped up by their envy, preventing them from tending to their own stuff. I'm not saying I'm not frequently one of those people, but I'm working on it.

I wrote about this when I was reading Anne Lamott way back in the early days of Chickarina. Previously: Be Kind, Breathe, and Take a Walk